On Saturday, Mississippi State will do something it hasn’t done in 26 years: play a game in Hattiesburg against Southern Miss. And one man will have been on the sideline for both.
Rockey Felker, who was also one of the top quarterbacks in school history, was MSU’s head coach in 1989 when his Bulldogs took on Brett Favre and the Golden Eagles on their home field, and now he’s back on the staff under Dan Mullen as the director of player personnel, ready to bridge a 26-year gap in the rivalry.
“We’ve got to be at our best on Saturday,” Felker says now. “I’m probably more familiar with the State-Southern rivalry than most people here, so I know what it was like then. We better be at our best. There’s no doubt Southern will be ready.”
For coaches like Mullen and most of his staff who are new to MSU, relatively speaking, or fans who weren’t following in the ‘80s, and especially the players who, for the most part, weren’t even born when the rivalry was last active, MSU-USM isn’t something they understand as well as those who were a part of it back then.
The two schools had signed a 10-game deal, and by the time Felker and his Bulldogs took the field in Hattiesburg for the last time in 1989, they were on their ninth game of the series and had lost the last three contests under Felker.
“Even though it was a non-conference game, it had become like a big rivalry because they had had a lot of success against us,” Felker said. “It was kind of a sore subject with our fans. There was a lot of talk leading up to it.”
Going into the game itself, Southern was supposed to win. They had a good team and were expected to do big things behind a quarterback named Brett Favre who not quite yet the big deal he would one day become.
In fact, as those who remember it will tell, USM was the only big school in the state who wanted him, and even they thought he’d be better off as a safety. But he ended up at quarterback, and his team was supposed to beat Felker’s that day in Hattiesburg.
And really, they probably should have. USM had more rushing yards, more than twice as many passing yards, double the first downs, half the fumbles, two fewer penalties and 10 minutes more possession time than MSU.
“If you look at the stats, you would think that we got beat by three or four touchdowns,” Felker said. “But our players never quit. They gave it everything they had.”
Midway through the first quarter, MSU led USM 7-3 in front of what Felker remembers to be one of the most intense crowds he’d ever been around. But Favre led his team on a nearly six-minute drive, engineering an 81-yard march ending in a touchdown and giving USM the lead. With just over one minute left in the half for a slow, methodical MSU offense, the Eagles celebrated, expecting to go into halftime with the 10-7 lead.
But that plodding State offense never even got a chance to run out the clock. When Southern kicked the ball off toward the far endzone, it was a man in Maroon and White who caught it and returned it 96 yards for the score and the lead.
The strong contingent of MSU supporters went wild, quickly drowning out the cheers of the home crowd, which had been so loud just moments before.
“What I remember a lot about the game was our fans,” Felker said. “There are so many fans in south Mississippi. They came out and they were loud and they were supportive. I’m sure that’s going to be the case this time. They’re going to be visible.”
When the second half came around, the intensity only grew. A defensive second quarter grew into a similar battle through much of the third. The two teams exchanged field goals, giving MSU a 17-13 lead. At the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth, each team scored a touchdown of its own. MSU 23, USM 20.
And then, 2:55 left in the game, USM finally tied it. At 23-each, it looked as if the in-state battle was going to end in a stalemate. The two teams would have to wait until the last year of the 10-game contract for the final bragging rights.
So it looked to those in the stands, anyway. But Felker was determined. He’d lost to this team too many times, heard too many comments and taken too many shots to his pride.
“We were trying to build our program,” Felker remembers. “All the hard work and all the offseason program of building character and intangibles that you know you’re gonna need when you get into a dogfight, all kinda came to the forefront.”
In that moment, despite the fact USM had played the better game, Felker’s Bulldogs gave everything they had to move the ball. Ultimately, it came down to one play. With eight seconds left on the clock, the foot of kicker Joel Logan was the difference between emerging victorious or falling just short.
From 34 yards out, Logan swung his leg and sent the prayer tumbling through the air.
“Right through the goal posts,” Felker recalls now with a smile.
They had done it, finally.
“It was one of the most intense games I was ever a part of,” Felker says now. “It was a packed house – just the emotion and the effort and the intensity of the game.”
Fast-forward two-and-half decades, and the rivalry was renewed, though with quite a different feel. As programs tend to do, USM and MSU had changed a good deal by the time they met in 2014. State hosted USM last season for the first time since that 10-year deal ended, beating their one-time rival 49-0. And while State was the road underdog 26 years before, MSU will go into Saturday’s game as the decided favorite.
But that’s not to say the game doesn’t still mean something. Especially not to those like Felker.
“Our fans remember what it’s like, and I think our players realize that,” Felker said. “We’re going to face a much-improved Southern team from what we saw a year ago. There’s no doubt that they’ll be ready to play. We’ll be in their backyard and it’ll be intense. It’s a game that they’ve been waiting for for a year.”